State auditor talks challenges in post-pandemic Iowa

Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Photo by Seth Boyes

Iowa's Auditor of State Rob Sand made several stops in the region June 2 and met with local officials in front of the Dickinson County Courthouse that afternoon. He addressed a number of questions on topics from efficient practices to federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun said the pandemic's ripple effect is still causing lengthy delays for his department's purchases. Baloun said a number of items have been on order for five to seven months as suppliers struggle to meet demand in many cases he said ammunition has quadrupled in price as well.

"There's not a squad car to be found," Baloun told Sand.

Photo by Seth Boyes

Typically, paying for an order in one fiscal year and receiving it in another would be problematic, Baloun said the county's new fiscal year starts next month. Sand agreed with Baloun's concern, but noted his staff expects upcoming audits will acknowledge unforeseen financial strain induced by the pandemic in a special section.

"It's less a negative finding and more of a disclosure," Sand said, noting many counties are likely in the same boat.

Sand advised counties to document the date items were ordered as well as the last contact they had with their vendors so officials can provide as much transparency as possible when the time comes.

But while some county purchases have increased in price the past year, a decision several years ago is helping the county keep utility costs at bay. Dickinson County Auditor Lori Petersen noted the county courthouse added an underground ice pit about three years ago, which takes some of the burden off traditional air conditioning. The system generates ice during the night outside high demand hours and, when the building reaches its peak use, a chiller fan engages to help cool the building. Petersen said it's resulted in a substantial savings on the county's utility bill, and the $120,000 system was initially estimated to pay for itself in eight years.

Petersen also noted at least one member of the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors is pushing for solar panels to be added to the courthouse roof. Supervisor Tim Fairchild has mentioned such an addition during several past board meetings, and Sand said the idea is a good one his office recently completed a survey of local governments and schools who have installed solar arrays.

"It's paid out for the folks who were the first-movers on that at the local level," Sand said.

He said his office estimated if all 99 of Iowa's counties had at least three solar installations possibly a county entity, city entity and school district it would result in a savings of about $365 million taxpayer dollars statewide.

And many local-level entities are also anticipating funds from the American Rescue Plan in the near future. The funds, aimed at providing economic support and establishing COVID-19 vaccination programs, come in addition to the CARES Act funding disseminated during the previous administration. Petersen said Dickinson County might receive approximately $3.32 million from the American Rescue Plan in the coming weeks. Petersen said the county will likely wait until guidance is more clear before spending the funds governments will have several years to spend the money.

Sand's office is working with the Iowa State Association of Counties as well as the Iowa League of Cities to provide guidance for local governments as they prepare to use the federal funds. Sand said they may have to look closely at a potential conflict between federal intention and Iowa's constitution. Specifically, Sand said it seems the federal government intends for the dollars to be available to nonprofit organizations through the local government, but he pointed out the Iowa's constitution doesn't allow counties to donate funds to nonprofits.

"We shouldn't be putting nonprofits at a disadvantage compared to for-profits," Sand said. "Counties and cities regularly contract services with for-profits. There's no reason if it's a contract that you can't do the same with a nonprofit."

He indicated documenting such an agreement might place the relief funds outside the definition of a donation.

"We all know the work that nonprofits do, especially in rural areas that are sort of assistive to the government, is really important," Sand said. "We just want to make sure we're doing it in a way that meets the constitution's restrictions on donations."

Sand went on to say that, with the same number of state auditors, it may be a challenge to sort through the two federal relief sources during local-level audits. Sand said he believes the American Rescue Plan funds will be more diffused compared to the CARES Act funding, which he said were left to the discretion of the governor. That said, Sand's staff itself has become more diffused in recent years. In the past, staff at the State Auditor's Office were largely limited to living in the Des Moines area. However, Sand said that rule was changed in 2019 Sand's first year in office to allow staff to live anywhere in the state so long as they had one year of experience and not necessarily in Sand's office.

"We work in all different counties," Sand said. "There's no reason we shouldn't let our staff live anywhere in the state they want."

Dickinson County Treasurer Kris Rowley said it's often advantageous to have the auditor's staff work with her office personally, and it minimizes confusion when reviewing various records. Sand said staff outside the Capitol are generally given the assignments closest to their home, which cuts down on both mileage and lodging costs. He said staff can often use open office space in local courthouses, city halls or even local libraries. State Rep. Megan Jones agreed the change in policy was a good one.

"It gives a nice presence for the state," she said, noting the auditor's staff can now join local service clubs and other organizations in their home communities.

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